Restaurants tend to come and go pretty fast on the Lower East Side, so it’s no small feat when a locally-owned spot hangs in for more than a couple of years. The much-loved Austrian-influenced restaurant, Cafe Katja, has done a lot better than that. It was about this time of year in 2007 that Andrew Chase and Erwin Schnottner opened their little place at 79 Orchard St. This fall they’re celebrating Katja’s tenth anniversary.
In 2013, The Lo-Down’s readers chose Cafe Katja as the best restaurant on the Lower East Side. There are a few reasons why it’s been a favorite year after year. For one thing, you’ll almost always find either Schnottner or Chase (sometimes both) working the dining room, checking on orders from the open kitchen in the back of the restaurant or tending bar. They do not leave the details to others. Second, Katja is a neighborhood restaurant with a casual vibe, which just happens to serve up incredibly well-prepared food.
The partners met years ago in the kitchen at Monkey Bar. Schnottner (who grew up outside Graz, Austria) used to complain that no one in New York City knew how to pour a proper draft beer. The idea for Katja, named for one of Schnottner’s daughters, grew from a fairly simple concept: Serve delicious beer, paired with house made sausages (emmentaler, bratwurst, etc.). Since opening, they’ve expanded twice, taking over additional storefront space on Orchard Street, and have grown the menu to accommodate different tastes.
We have many personal menu favorites. Hearty eaters can’t go wrong with the decadent sausage sampler, piled high with a selection of wursts, succulent pork belly, sauerkraut and dumplings stuffed with soft quark cheese. Other excellent choices are Katja’s “reuben sandwich,” made with pork belly, cabbage and cheese, or the burger (one of the best in the neighborhood), topped with gruyere and caramelized onions. Other times, we pull up a couple of bar stools for a quick drink and snacks. Katja’s homemade pretzels, cheese and cured meat plates and liverwurst pair nicely with a pint.
One of the best times to stop by Katja is on weekend mornings, when the restaurant provides a refreshing alternative to the typical LES “boozy brunch.” We love the cheese blintzes, perfectly prepared omelets and creamed spinach with poached eggs. The restaurant caters to locals all the time, but it’s during the day on Saturdays and Sundays, that you’re most likely to spot your neighbors enjoying some family time.
Referring to Schnottner and Chase in a 2007 review, the New York Times noted, “Both men have spent most of their careers in more ambitious uptown kitchens than the one at Katja, but it’s clear from eating there — where they both wait on tables — that they’re having more fun now.” A few years ago, Chase, who lives in the neighborhood, told us, “It’s a pleasure to be here, basically all the time… Even when we aren’t that busy, I often walk home from work and I say to my wife, ‘You know, we weren’t that busy, but we had the nicest people in tonight.”
Those people have been coming back night after night for a decade, which is a big reason why Cafe Katja has staying power on the Lower East Side.